I have a thing about birthdays. I have never been a fan of my own and it has nothing to do with aging. To me, birthdays are like New Year’s Eve—there is the sense that something big, exciting and life changing is supposed to magically happen and then it winds up being just like any other day, except, if you’re lucky, you get some new stuff and a cake.
As a kid the two P’s are what cause the most potential stress: Presents and Party. You get a lame present (like an album for the stamp collection you have no intention of starting) from the weird daughter of your mother’s college friend with whom she only recently resumed contact. Or your grandmother forgets that purple is your sister’s favorite color while yours is pink and now you’re stuck with a monogrammed sweater that makes you look like an eggplant. Or the mean girl you invited to see “Tommy” (I know, totally inappropriate) for your 10th birthday movie-party (because you have yet to identify her as mean) whispers audibly to another girl that your mother is cheap because she brought homemade popcorn to the theater instead of forking over $50 at the concession stand for eight entitled tweens. All told, it’s a day in which Disappointment is as likely to RSVP as Delight.
The unfortunate thing about my birthday issues is that I don’t keep them to myself. I project them onto everyone else. I assume my friends and family are as concerned as I am about being bummed out on their special day so I overcompensate the only way I know how—I bake them their ‘favorite’ cake. The means by which I determine that their favorite is indeed their favorite varies. Some people make their requests known. Like my father, “coconut layer cake with lemon curd please.” Or I might interpret their favorite candy; my sister’s love of Reese’s peanut butter cups=chocolate peanut butter cupcakes.
Sometimes my celebratory efforts are greeted with lip smacking appreciation and sometimes, really, not. Like the time when I noticed that a guy I thought I was dating ordered a nouvelle cuisine carrot cake-ish deconstructed dessert at his favorite fine dining restaurant. A few weeks later I cleverly made him carrot cake birthday cupcakes only to be met with, “Oh, thanks,” a blank stare and a subsequent Houdini-esque disappearing act. Or last weekend. The occasion: my niece’s birthday. The assignment: enough cupcakes for the family lunch and the day care party. She was turning two and can down a pint of strawberries in the blink of an eye. So naturally I made vanilla cupcakes with strawberry buttercream! Her older sister laid waste to hers, as did her parents, grandparents and aunt. But the poor little birthday girl took one bite of her be-candled pink baby cake, screwed up her face and announced, “I don’t yike my cupcake Mom.”
Oh well. Clearly, I need to stop burdening others with the job of healing my wounds by shoving a cake frosted with expectation at them. They may very well be blissfully birthday issue free. However, I will not accept that my strawberry buttercreamed yellow cakes were 'unyikeable.' We’ll chalk up my niece’s disgust to her chronological naivete. Or, as my late grandmother used to say, she “doesn’t know what’s good.”
Some Notes: You may be more familiar with the lazy, I mean easy, buttercream technique of mixing a pound of powdered sugar with a pound of butter and calling it frosting. I call it a tooth-rotting insulin blast off. This Swiss meringue buttercream is luxuriously silky, sweet enough for the kids (but not cavity inducing) and subtle enough for the grown-ups. I’ve made up for the extra effort it requires by pairing it with a super easy, no-fuss no-muss cupcake recipe. Also, if strawberry isn't the fave flavor of your birthday boy or girl, you can use the same amount of any flavor jam, OR leave well enough alone, add nothing and keep it in its pure vanilla state. Now go make someone’s (but not my niece’s) birthday happy.
Won't Disappoint Birthday Cupcakes
Strawberry Meringue Buttercream
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
4 large egg white (or 1/2 cup if, like me, your freezer is full of egg whites from when recipes call for just yolks)
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks unsalted room temp butter, cut into Tablespoons
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
12 oz jar of strawberry jam
Empty jar of strawberry jam into food processor and pulse till smooth, set aside.
Combine sugar and egg white in heatproof bowl from your electric mixer and place on top of a pan of simmering water (you are creating a double boiler).
Whisk sugar and egg white constantly until sugar is completely dissolved and mixture is warm to touch, @ 160 degrees on candy thermometer.
Remove bowl from pan, place in mixer and using whisk attachment beat on high speed until whites hold still peaks.
Continue beating until mixture is fluffy and cooled, @ 6 minutes.
Stop mixer, remove whisk attachment and change to paddle attachment.
With mixer on medium-low speed add softened butter a Tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. (If after you've added all the butter the buttercream looks curdled or separated do not worry. Beat on high and it will come together.)
When mixture looks fluffy and makes a thwacking sound (I know, that's weird but it works!) as it is being beaten you can stop.
Add the vanilla and beat just to incorporate.
Remove bowl from mixer and with a rubber spatula stir in strawberry jam until fully incorporated.
Yield: 5 cups frosting, enough to frost 24 cupcakes or 8"-9" two layer cake.
Everyday Food, September 2006
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350
Line 12 cup muffin tin with paper liners. (You can easily double this recipe)
In small bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In liquid measuring cup mix milk and vanilla. Set aside.
Place sugar and butter in bowl of electric mixer and beat until light & fluffy, @ 3-4 minutes.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
With mixer on low gradually add half of the dry ingredients, then pour in the milk/vanilla and then add the other half of the dry ingredients.
Mix until fully combined but do not over-mix.
Using 1/4 cup (normal size) ice cream scoop portion out cupcakes into muffin cups.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until toothpick inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean and tops spring back when gently pushed.
Cool cupcakes in tin for 5 minutes then remove from pan and cool on rack completely.
Using a pastry bag or spatula, frost, blow out the candles and eat!
Yield: 12 cupcakes but feel free to double and use up all the frosting.